Sees, Shoots And Leaves

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Shooting a portrait is like making love by surprise, says RAGHU RAI

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Portraiture, says Raghu Rai, 69, is half internal attitude and half the sharpening of intuition. The acclaimed photographer has collected his and others’ best works in the new book, 
The Indians: Portraits From My Album. Here, Rai shares six suggestions on how to capture a person’s essence in the black (or not-so-black anymore) box.

  • Travel Light. Carry only your camera and a zoom lens. Skip the huge bags and the tripod. I don’t want people to look at me and say, ‘Oh, here is a professional.’ It intimidates people.
  • Shoot candid. One-to-one portraits reek of a conscious photographer and subject. Take a few pictures, talk and joke with the subject, and be relaxed and easy. Once the person has settled down and is no longer aware of the camera — click. It should be a direct contact between the camera and the person. When I shot the image of Bal Thackeray, I had taken a few shots when he stopped me and said it was time for him to drink wine. I asked him to go ahead. I made him sit on that chair with images of tigers and Shivaji in the backdrop, where he felt in his element. He lit his cigar — and there, I had the shot.
  • Stop listening and start observing. If it is a journalistic portrait, you must capture what you understand about the person in a short time. I once shot former Pakistani president Zia-ul-Haq at a press conference. Someone could be saying great things from great books they read but they don’t match their real personality, they are borrowed things. If you are a tyrant, you may be saying great things, but your body language and your eyes will reveal something else. I try to connect with a person’s energy, not the surface reality.
  • Surprise. The portrait of Satyajit Ray with that stern expression on his face was taken when I caught him off-guard. I said “I am leaving” and then he turned around quickly to look at me. I had my camera ready and I captured him. His eyes were so strong, the light and shadow created a beautiful drama and it worked out brilliantly, spontaneously. Similarly, when we were in France exhibiting together, I went to Ebrahim Alkazi and said “Arrey, you are here, let me shoot a portrait.” He said something that I thought was naughty and walked off. I was thinking “How dare you walk off” and was determined to capture him. There is a mixture of arrogance and humour in the portrait that resulted.
  • Pause and think before shooting away. In the age of long exposures, people had to hold their breath till the photo was taken. You hold your breath and in that moment emotions come and go in your eyes and all that intensity is captured on camera. Modern portraits are faster and can be more fluid but they lack that depth. What can you capture in the fraction of a second? Take your time.
  • Suspend conditioning. Switch off the computer in your head. The early films of Satyajit Ray had a magical spiritual quality to them. His later films were still better than 10 films made in Mumbai, but they had become planned and intellectual. Unless the supernatural comes and plays a part and reveals itself, the picture is only good and nice as information can be. It is like the difference between making love and having an intellectual orgasm.

As told to Yamini Deenadayalan

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